Nearly Half of Food Waste Happens Before It Reaches the Market

Mike Pomranz

While you were growing up, your parents may have told you to eat all the food on your plate because other children were going hungry. Little did they mention, however, that 14 percent of food never reaches your plate, or even the grocery store for that matter—and this "food loss" can be just as problematic as "food waste" is.

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This week, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released its State of Food and Agriculture 2019 report. One of the primary goals was to tease apart the different between "food loss," which happens before food reaches retail, and "food waste," which happens at retail and beyond—with the hope of eventually providing accurate analysis of both in the form of a Food Loss Index and a Food Waste Index. The FAO handles the Food Loss Index and determined that 14 percent of the world's food is lost after harvest but before it reaches the retail level. Meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Programme is handling the Food Waste Index, and the FAO says, "Estimates for this index are forthcoming."

But in 2011, the FAO made a broad estimate that 30 percent of the world's food was either lost or wasted annually. Assuming that estimate was accurate, the Food Loss Index shows that about half of all food that never gets consumed is lost on the production side—hammering home the extent to which preventing food waste overall is about more than just eating everything in your fridge before it goes bad or making smaller portions.

"These more precise figures will allow us to better measure our progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 12, which sets out the target of halving per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030, as well as reducing food losses along production and supply chains," the FAO writes. At the same time, the organization also understands the answers are not black and white. "While the reduction of food loss and waste appears as a clear and desirable objective, actual implementation is not simple and its complete elimination may not be realistic," the report states. Finding the best solution "will require access to proper information."

So in the end, the FAO's report is more about providing information to help policymakers choose what kind of action might be best for their country. But there are takeaways for us as well including—yes—hard facts that your parents might have been a bit shortsighted in their food waste solutions.